Thursday, January 21, 2016

How the raven became a gentleman: the evolution of the fable of the fox and the raven in book illustrations

Gustave Doré in: De Fabelen van La Fontaine, 1895

J. Punt in: Fabelen van J. De la Fontaine, 1805
Practically everybody knows the story of the tortoise and the hare. The overconfident hare that decides to take a nap in the middle of a running contest, while the slow but modest tortoise follows through and finally wins the competition. A story that teaches us that slow but certain is better than fast and improvident and that teaches us morals about how to behave well in society.
These fables find their roots in the sixth-century before Christ. It is thought that they were written by the Greek slave Aesop. Although his existence remains uncertain and none of his writings survived, numerous tales credited to him, were gathered across the centuries. Many of the tales are characterized by animals and lifeless objects that speak, solve problems, and have human characteristics.

The representation of fables in pictures has a long history as well. In comparison to other illustrative fashions the fable was a conservative one, which makes the development of the fable illustration a very interesting subject. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century there has been little to none evolution in the way the fables were depicted. To demonstrate this, one can compare different illustrations of the fable ‘the fox and the raven’. In this fable a raven (or sometimes a crow) has found a piece of cheese and decides to eat it on a branch. The fox, who wants it for itself, flatters the bird, calling it beautiful and wondering whether its voice is too. While it starts singing, the cheese falls out of his beak and is eaten by the fox.

J. Gole in: Sinryke Fabulen, 1685
The scene is originally portrayed in the same way over and over again as seen in the small selection of the work by J. Gole, J. Van Vianen and J. Punt. This goes on until the French illustrator and caricaturist J. J. Grandville (1803-1847) gets his hands on the story. Instead of disguising the moral of the story in animal figures, he gives the animals back their human characteristics and places the scene in the spirit of his age. The raven becomes an elite gentleman with his glasses and honorary medal, while the fox is depicted as a mischievous fellow of the lower class.
J. van Vianen in: Ezopische fabelen van Fedrus, 1703

Another innovator of the fable illustration was the French illustrator and painter Gustave Doré (1832-1883). Doré perfectly represented the romantic ideas of his time in his illustrations. 
He did this by depicting the events of the fable in the corner and filling the predominant part of the plate with dark forests and wild cloudscapes, although his picture of the fox and the raven is more conservative than innovative.

J. J. Grandville in: Fables de La Fontaine, 1852
De Rave om hoog op eenen boom gezeten
Zou een stuk kaes, dat zy gerooft had, eten.
Dit zag de Vos, en sprak aldus haer aen:
Wat zytge, o Raef, met schoonheit aangedaen!
Hoe schoon is uw gelaet! hoe schoon uw veren!
Hoe zeer zoud gy elk een betrionferen,

Indien ’t geluk, dat alles overheert,
U midelyk had met een’ stem vereert,
Waer van gy ongelukkig blyft versteken!
De domme Raef begint hier op te spreken.
Maer zy verliest terstond naer lekker aes.
De looze Vos schiet toe, gaet met de kaes.

Voort stryken, en belacht dees grove botheit.
De Rave ziende in ’t einde hare zotheit,
Sprak dus: Ik leer met schade dezen dag,
Dat wysheit meer dan sterkte en kracht vermag.

Ezopische fabelen van Fedrus, 1703, 21-22 pp.

[left] (Probably) J. van Noord, 1791
[right] J. Desandré and W. H. Freeman in: Fables de J. de la Fontaine, 1868

by Sanne Hansler